SAN JOSE, Calif. — Despite the second major security breach this year, San Jose airport officials and the Transportation Security Administration downplayed this week’s incident in which a well-known trespasser somehow boarded a plane and completed a flight without a ticket.
But their explanation, that the stowaway posed no security threat because she passed a TSA screening, isn’t flying with critics such as Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democrat and the only California congressman on the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security.
“We wouldn’t have a no-fly list if that wasn’t a concern,” said Swalwel on Wednesday, who was also critical of a stowaway incident at the airport in April.
“The reason a no-fly list exists is that we believe a layer of the security process is knowing who is on the plane. The woman was harmless, but there are people who I don’t want on an airplane even if they go through security screening, who the public doesn’t want on an airplane.”
Most Read Life Stories
- The hard-to-find, halal-Mexican restaurant in South Seattle you need to know about VIEW
- Rant & Rave: Leave the wolves alone
- Late bloomers: Adult ballet classes bring the joy of dance at any age VIEW
- Dining Out: 10 essential Seattle restaurants
- 4 Washington cities make nation's top 50 urban areas for access to parks, public lands
Marilyn Hartman, a 62-year-old homeless woman who was arrested seven times this year for trying to sneak aboard flights at San Francisco International Airport, bypassed two ticket checkpoints by sneaking past guards and went undetected throughout a Southwest Airlines trip from San Jose to Los Angeles on Monday. In February, Hartman was caught aboard another airline ready to take off from SFO when another passenger said she was in his seat.
A similar case has never been documented at San Jose airport but is not unheard of around the world. Experts say it shines a light on another potential hole in airport security — apparently, the occasional inattention of airport workers such as TSA guards.
Richard Bloom, the director of terrorism, intelligence and security studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona, said that potential terrorists “collect as much security and safety violations as they can because they may suggest vulnerabilities in the system.”
Mineta San Jose International Airport officials said the breach was “extremely distinct” from an April incident in which a teenager hopped a fence at the airport and completed a flight to Hawaii tucked inside a wheel well. In this case, Hartman went though the TSA security line that frustrates so many travelers and apparently did not have any prohibited items.
“She was as safe as any other passenger that walks through here. She was fully screened like the rest of the 9 million passengers,” that fly out of the airport annually, said John Aitken, the airport’s acting assistant director of aviation. Airport director Kim Aguirre did not make herself available to answer questions Wednesday.
But at least one city councilman, Pete Constant, a former San Jose police officer, also said he was irked by the airport’s response and urged the city administration to take more responsibility.
A source briefed on the investigation said Hartman was able to sneak past the TSA ticket checkpoint, after three failed tries, by blending in with a family and then slipping past the guard. She tried to board at least one other flight, at an Alaska Airlines gate, but was rebuffed. She used a similar tactic of blending with other passengers to slip past the Southwest gate agent, and remained undetected once on board.
“Following an initial review by TSA at San Jose International Airport, the agency has initiated minor modifications to the layout of the document checking area to prevent another incident like this one,” the TSA said in a statement.
Hartman, who authorities say has mental health issues, was only discovered after a head-count by airline staff upon landing in Los Angeles. She was charged with misdemeanor trespassing, and pleaded no contest Wednesday, prompting a judge to sentence her to two years probation and three days in jail, for which she was credited for time already served and released. The judge also ordered Hartman to stay away from the Los Angeles airport unless she has a ticket to fly.
Frank Mateljan, spokesman for Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, said that Hartman passed all mental health exams, prompting officials not to place her in a mental health facility. Hartman has been referred to Los Angeles police to help her find housing and other basic needs.
TSA declined to comment beyond its statement. Southwest, which could face regulatory fines for the incident, did not return messages seeking comment but previously said it was conducting its own investigation.
After a teen hopped a San Jose airport fence and stowed away in a flight’s wheel well in April, airport officials partnered with a nonprofit called Safe Skies to sift through various technological security upgrades that outside companies have offered, with the plan to roll some of them out in the next few months. But it’s unclear if funding is available, or what those specific upgrades — which may include a new fence — might be. No one was punished for the first incident.
Bloom and another expert, Jeff Price, cautioned that it wasn’t fair to assume there is a broader cause for concern at San Jose airport as a result of the two stowaways, because one involved perimeter security and the other interior operations. And in both cases, the airport’s security setup follows the TSA’s lead.
“It’s like blaming the offense for the defense allowing a touchdown,” said Price, an aviation security author and professor at Metropolitan State University in Denver. “It’s just unfortunate for San Jose that both of those incidents happened to happen at their airport.”